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[Frontiers in Bioscience xx, xxx, 1, 20xx]

Role of melatonin supplementation in neurodegenerative disorders

Giovanni Polimeni1, Emanuela Esposito2, Valentina Bevelacqua3,4, Claudio Guarneri5, Salvatore Cuzzocrea2

IRCCS Centro Neurolesi, Bonino-Pulejo, Messina, Italy, 2Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of
Messina, Messina, Italy, 3Dermatology Unit, AORNAS, Garibaldi, Hospital, Catania, Italy, 4Department of Biomedical Sciences,
University of Catania, Italy, 5Department of Social Territorial Medicine, Section of Dermatology, University of Messina, Italy
1. Abstract
2. Introduction
3. Melatonin
4. Mechanisms of action of melatonin
5. Role Of melatonin in neurodegenerative diseases
5.1. Melatonin in Alzheimers disease
5.2. Melatonin in aging and Parkinson's disease
5.3. Melatonin In Huntington disease
5.4. Melatonin and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
6. Melatonin In dietary supplements
7. Perspective
8. Acknowledgments
9. References



Neurodegenerative diseases are chronic and

progressive disorders characterized by selective destruction
of neurons in motor, sensory and cognitive systems.
Despite their different origin, free radicals accumulation
and consequent tissue damage are importantly concerned
for the majority of them. In recent years, research on
melatonin revealed a potent activity of this hormone against
oxidative and nitrosative stress-induced damage within the
nervous system. Indeed, melatonin turned out to be more
effective than other naturally occurring antioxidants,
suggesting its beneficial effects in a number of diseases
where oxygen radical-mediated tissue damage is involved.
With specific reference to the brain, the considerable
amount of evidence accumulated from studies on various
neurodegeneration models and recent clinical reports
support the use of melatonin for the preventive treatment of
major neurodegenerative disorders. This review
summarizes the literature on the protective effects of
melatonin on Alzheimer disease, Parkinson disease,
Huntingtons disease and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.
Additional studies are required to test the clinical efficacy
of melatonin supplementation in such disorders, and to
identify the specific therapeutic concentrations needed.

The oxidative stress is a shift towards the prooxidant in the pro-oxidant/antioxidant balance that can occur
as a result of an increase in oxidative metabolism. Increase
in energy metabolism by aerobic pathways augments the
intracellular concentration of free oxygen radicals, which in
turn enhance the rate of the autocatalytic process of lipid
peroxidation, inducing damage to structures, inhibition of
cellular respiration, DNA alteration (i.e. base-pair mutations,
deletions, insertions, sequence amplification) and proteins
modification. The high content of lipids of nervous tissue,
coupled with its high aerobic metabolic activity, makes it
particularly susceptible to oxidative damage.
The great production of mitochondrial-derived
superoxide anions is normally balanced by an efficient
antioxidant system composed of free radical scavengers,
metal chelators, metabolic enzymes and mitochondrial
respiration itself that neutralize free radicals and their
negative effects (1, 2). However, there are several paraphysiological and pathological conditions, including aging
(3), cancer or acute and chronic inflammation (4-6), where
the oxidant/antioxidant homeostasis is impaired because of
an excess of oxidants and/or a depletion of antioxidants,

Melatonin in neurodegenerative disorders

leading to cytotoxic effects which play a role in their

pathophysiology. Depending on its extent, oxidative stress
may be either cause of minimal cellular damage, or provoke
a serious injury such as apoptosis and necrosis (7).
Defense against all of these processes is dependent
upon the capability of various antioxidants that are derived
either directly or indirectly from the diet (8). However, since
reactive oxygen species (ROS) also have useful role in cells,
such as redox signaling, the function of antioxidant systems
is not to remove oxidants entirely, but instead to keep them
at an optimum level. Unlike other antioxidants, melatonin
does not undergo redox cycling. Melatonin, once oxidized,
cannot be reduced to its former state because it forms several
stable end-products upon reacting with free radicals.
Therefore, it has been referred to as a terminal (or suicidal)
antioxidant (9).
Melatonin is mainly produced in the mammalian
pineal gland from the neurotransmitter serotonin during the
dark phase. Melatonin secretion from the pineal gland has
been classically associated with circadian and circanual
rhythm regulation, and with adjustments of physiology of
animals to seasonal environmental changes (10). Melatonin
production, however, is not confined exclusively to the
pineal gland, but other organs and tissues including retina,
Harderian glands, gut, ovary, testes, bone marrow and lens
also produce it (11). Melatonins activities transcend those
of a hormonal modulator, since it influences the functions of
tissues and cells not generally considered in the endocrine
category (12). Various studies suggest a role for melatonin
and its metabolites in the antioxidative defense in all
organisms (13-16). Melatonin up regulates antioxidative
defensive systems, including the activities of superoxide
dismutase and glutathione peroxidase as well as the levels of
glutathione (17).
Exogenous administration of melatonin can also
entrain the circadian clock by a direct action on the central
nervous system (CNS) and, thus, it represents a potential
treatment for disoriented circadian clock in cases such as jetlag, and in individuals with delayed or advanced sleep phase
syndromes and sleep inefficiency (18).
The ability of melatonin to maintain cell integrity
and its remarkably low toxicity has prompted to investigate
its potential application in future therapeutic strategies for
the treatment of ROS-derived diseases. This review provides
a comprehensive discussion of the neuroprotective effects of
melatonin and its potential clinical implications in those
neurodegenerative diseases where free radicals-mediated
insult is involved.
Melatonin is ubiquitously found in the body:
because of the amphiphilicity of its chemical structure,
once synthesized (or after exogenous administration), it
readily passes across all morphophysiological barriers
(such as the blood-brain barrier) and diffuses to all cells
compartment or body fluid. The majority of endogenous
melatonin is directly released from the pineal gland to the

cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) of the brain's third ventricle;

from this location, melatonin readily diffuses into the
surrounding neural tissue (19). A smaller fraction (up to 20
folds lower) is released into the capillary blood where it is
distributed to all tissues (20). Besides the pineal gland,
many other organs and tissues are responsible for its
production, including retina, gastrointestinal tract, gonads,
bone marrow and lens, thus suggesting its involvement in a
number of yet undefined activities at a cellular and tissue
levels which go beyond its classic functions as an hormone
(12, 21).
A crucial role for melatonin and its metabolites as
potent free radical scavengers and antioxidants has been
confirmed not only in vitro but also in several in vivo
studies over the years (22). Animals treated with different
toxics known to promote free radicals production
(including paraquat, LPS or safrole) showed a significant
reduction in the oxidative damage when concomitantly
treated with melatonin (23-25).
The presence in melatonin structure of an
electron-rich aromatic indole ring which functions as an
electron-donor may explain its ability to reduce and
neutralize electrophilic radicals, thus protecting
intracellular proteins, DNA and lipids from the oxidative
damage (26). Indeed, experimental studies have shown that,
compared to classical antioxidants, melatonin is
significantly more efficient; in fact, because of its
amphiphilic feature, differently from other free radical
scavengers that are either hydrophilic or lipophilic,
melatonin can limit oxidative damage in both the lipid and
aqueous phases of cells (27). Nonetheless, its antioxidant
activity is not limited to free radicals scavenging, but also
involves other indirect mechanisms, including the
stimulation of several antioxidative defensive enzymes (e.g.
superoxide dismutase, glutathione reductase and
glutathione peroxidase) (17, 28-30) and the downregulation of pro-oxidant enzymes, in particular 5- and 12lipo-oxygenase and nitric oxide (NO) synthases (31, 32).
Additionally, recent studies showed that melatonin
effectively binds and inactivate endogenous iron, thus
suppressing the Fenton reaction and the consequent
overproduction of ROS (33).
Melatonin is metabolized by cytochrome P-450
hydroxylation at the 6-carbon position to yield 6hydroxymelatonin (34). This reaction is followed by
conjugation with sulphate, to produce the principal urinary
metabolite, 6- sulphatoxymelatonin or, to a lesser extent,
with glucuronic acid. In the last step, conjugated melatonin
and little quantities of unmetabolized melatonin are
excreted through the kidney. In addition to hepatic
metabolism, oxidative pyrrole-ring cleavage appears to be
the major metabolic pathway in other tissues, contributing
to about one-third of the total catabolism, but the
percentage may be even higher in certain tissues, including
CNS (16). The primary cleavage product is the kynuric
(AFMK), which is then converted to N1-acetyl-5methoxykynuramine (AMK) (35). Both AFMK and AMK

Melatonin in neurodegenerative disorders

Figure 1. Principal effects of melatonin

are likewise free radical scavengers (36), which easily cross
the blood-brain barrier and form metabolites by interactions
with reactive oxygen and nitrogen species (37). It was
recently reported that AMK is a better antioxidant than its
precursor AFMK (38), and a more efficient NO scavenger
than melatonin (39). AMK also exhibited antiinflammatory properties, due to its capacity to inhibit and
down regulate cyclooxygenase 2 (COX-2), thus limiting
PGE2 production (40).
Melatonin has also shown to reverse chronic and
acute inflammatory processes, probably due to a direct
interaction with specific binding sites located in
lymphocytes and macrophages (41-46). Experimental and
clinical data have shown that melatonin reduces adhesion
molecules and pro-inflammatory cytokines including IL-6,
IL-8, and tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha and modifies
serum inflammatory parameters. As a consequence,
melatonin may improve the clinical course of illnesses
which have an inflammatory etiology (46).
Besides its antioxidant activity, melatonin
exhibited many other properties, some of them potentially
applicable for therapeutic purposes, including sedative,
anxiolytic, antidepressant, anticonvulsant, and analgesic
effects (Figure 1) (47). All these activities involve both
receptor-mediated and receptor-independent processes: the
formers normally occurs at physiological concentrations,
concentrations (48). Receptor-independent effects of
melatonin are associated to its direct binding to calmodulin,
with consequent inhibition of Ca2+/calmodulin-dependent

kinase II (49) and Ca2+-dependent membrane translocation

of protein kinase C (50).
Melatonin receptors include both G-protein
coupled membrane and nuclear receptors (RZR/ROR). The
two G-protein-coupled metabotropic melatonin receptors
have been cloned and classified based upon their kinetic
properties and pharmacological profiles into MT1 and MT2
subtypes (51). They belong to the seven transmembrane
receptor family, and the binding to these receptors results in
the inhibition of adenyl cyclase. MT1 and MT2, which are
the primary mediators of the physiological actions of
melatonin, are expressed in various tissues, including
central and peripheral nervous system, thus further
confirming melatonin capacity to pass the blood-brain
barrier (52).
Melatonin is also a ligand for retinoid orphan
nuclear hormone receptors, referred to as RZR-alpha and
RZR-beta, although showing lower sensitivity (53). Both
receptors are present in the central and peripheral nervous
system and have been associated with cell differentiation
and immune response regulation (54). Furthermore,
Steinhilber et al. reported that melatonin-induced RZRalpha receptors activation can down-regulate the expression
of 5-lipooxygenase, an important inflammatory mediator,
in B lymphocytes, thus modulating the inflammatory
response (55).
A third putative mammalian melatonin receptor
(MT3), the cytosolic quinine oxydoreductase 2 (QR2)
enzyme, has been recently proposed (56). Although the
physiological role of this enzyme is not known yet, its
inhibition induced by melatonin seems to be related to
melatonin indirect anti-oxidant properties, and over-

Melatonin in neurodegenerative disorders

expression of this enzyme may have deleterious effects



Despite the etiology of brain degenerative

diseases is multifactorial and still partially undefined,
oxidative stress is thought to play a crucial role in eliciting
most of neurological and age-related disorders. In recent
decades, many research groups have focused their attention
on the potential role of melatonin in neuroprotection (5860), basing on the observation that several central as well
as peripheral nervous system neurodegenerative diseases
(including Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease,
Huntingtons disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis)
share the reduced capacity to maintain the balance between
free radical formation and antioxidative mechanisms as a
common critical factor (30).
Indeed, the whole nervous system is particularly
prone to oxidative and nitrosative stress damage. This
susceptibility depends on the inherent biochemical and
physiological characteristics of the brain: high metabolic
activity utilizing a disproportionately large amount (20%)
of the total oxygen inhaled (61), small quantity of
endogenous scavengers, wide axonal and dendritic
networks, high content of polyunsaturated fatty acids
representing valid substrates for the formation of ROS.
Also, the presence of high concentrations of metals like
iron can contribute to free radical damage by catalyzing the
formation of reactive hydroxyl radicals, inducing secondary
initiation of lipid peroxidation and by promoting the
oxidation of proteins (62, 63). Abnormally high levels of
iron have been demonstrated in a number of
neurodegenerative disorders including Alzheimers disease
and those characterized by nigral degeneration such as
Parkinsons disease, multiple system atrophy, and
progressive supranuclear palsy (64).
Recent studies suggested that melatonin
neuroprotective activity may be related to its ability to
accumulate at the mitochondrial level due to its
lipophilicity (65), and to protect brain mitochondrial
membranes from free radical attack, thus maintaining
mitochondrial homeostasis and inhibiting mitochondrial
cell death pathways (66). In particular, melatonin acts not
only by lowering electron leakage, but also inhibiting the
opening of the mitochondrial permeability transition pore
(mtPTP), thus maintaining the mitochondrial respiratory
electron flux (67). This aspect is particularly important
since the efficiency of mitochondrial electron transport
system decreases with age; thus, a correlation between the
decline in brain mitochondrial activity and the etiology of
neurodegenerative disease has been suggested by several
Astroglial cells dysfunction seems to be
particularly involved in neurodegenerative damage; in
physiological conditions, astrocytes participate to several
brain functions (like neuronal development, synaptic
activity and cellular repairing after brain injuries) and

contribute to neuroprotection through inactivation of ROS

(68). Nevertheless, activated astrocytes may induce the
inducible nitric oxide synthases (iNOS), leading to an
excessive formation of NO (and its toxic metabolites),
which inhibits the mitochondrial neuronal respiration and
causes cellular energy deficiency and, eventually, neuronal
death (69). Glia activation seems to originate by a chronic
inflammatory state causing an immune response, with
cytokines production (interferons and interleukins) and
macrophages, lymphocytes, and other immune system cells
involvement. The consequent, sustained release of large
amounts of NO has been related to several neurological
diseases with inflammatory component, including HIV-1associated dementia, Alzheimers disease, multiple
sclerosis and stroke (70, 71).
Besides its traditional role as an antioxidant and
free radical scavenger, recent works show that melatonin
can also modulate astrocyte reactivity or death through an
upregulation of anti-oxidative astrocytic defenses:
melatonin protection against NO-induced impairment is
also associated with decreased upregulation of oxidative
stress-responsive genes, such as Hsp70, whose expression
is a valid indicator of astroglial stress (72).
Melatonin also prevents specifically the
activation of the pro-inflammatory enzymes COX-2 and
iNOS in glioma cells, thus indicating an anti-inflammatory
action. Importantly, melatonin did not alter COX-1 protein
level, one of the major disadvantages of non-specific nonsteroidal ant-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). The
mechanism through melatonin limits the nitrite/nitrate
production and reduces iNOS expression in glioma cells
involves NF-B pathway (73). A large body of evidence
confirms that melatonin and its metabolites show broad
spectrum of antioxidant activities, together with the
absence of any harmful side-effects even at high doses (74)
and with the ability to be taken up rapidly by neural
structures, supporting the clinical use of melatonin in
defense of morphological and functional integrity of the
The efficacy of melatonin and its metabolites in
either reducing the severity or delaying the onset of
neurodegenerative disorders has been estimated in various
conditions such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease (73,
75-78), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (48, 79), and neural
trauma (80, 81).
Moreover, data from clinical tests showed that
even at the higher concentrations (dosages up to 1g
melatonin daily for 30 days), melatonin is safe and welltolerated by humans (82, 83), which could encourage its
long-term administration for therapeutic uses.
5.1. Melatonin in Alzheimers disease
Alzheimers disease (AD) is a neurodegenerative
disorder, characterized by a progressive loss of neurons,
especially cholinergic neurons of the basal forebrain.
Clinical manifestations of the disease consist in an
irreversible memory impairment, cognitive dysfunction,
and behavioral changes. AD can occur in any decade of

Melatonin in neurodegenerative disorders

adulthood, but it is the most common cause of dementia in

people older than 70 (84). As a consequence, given the
increasing longevity of population in developed countries
(and in absence of effective treatments), the incidence of
AD is expected to dramatically grow in the future.
Although its etiology is largely unknown, there is
increasing evidence suggesting that neuroinflammation,
immune activation, nitrosative and oxidative stress play a
critical role in the pathogenesis of AD (85). The
postmortem histopathological analysis confirmed an
elevated lipid peroxidation in the brains of AD patients (86,
87), also showing effects of the disease on DNA oxidation
and protein reorganization in the brain cortex, with typical
abnormalities in cytoskeletal architecture (88, 89).
The inflammatory component in AD significantly
contributes to cell stress by promoting microglial activation
with the resultant generation of inflammatory cytokines and
neurotoxic free radicals (90); however, inflammatory
manifestations in AD typically lack in some features such
as neutrophil infiltration and edema, whereas other
characteristics including acute-phase proteins and cytokines
accumulation can be identified.
The neurotoxic effect has been ascribed to the
intracellular formation of i) neurofibrillary tangles (NFT),
that are histopathological lesions consisting of
hyperphosphorylated microtubule-associated protein tau at
the cytoskeletal level, and ii) senile plaques, derived from
the extracellular accumulation of soluble beta-amyloid
peptides (A-beta) in arterial walls of cerebral blood vessels
Tau protein promotes microtubules assembly and
stabilization; it also takes part in the formation and
Hyperphosphorylated tau protein reduces the ability to
stabilize microtubules, leading to disruption of the
cytoskeletal arrangement and neuronal transport (93). In
AD, the cytoskeleton is abnormally assembled into NFT,
and impairment of neurotransmission occurs. It is widely
accepted that hyperphosphorylation of the tau protein is due
to an imbalance between the activities of protein kinases
and protein phosphatases, suggesting that these proteins
could serve as therapeutic targets for AD.
Amyloid-beta1-42 peptide (A-beta1-42), which is
a fragment derived from proteinases-induced cleavage of
amyloid precursor protein (APP), is believed to play a
major role in promoting neuronal degeneration. Actually,
although the mechanism underlying A-beta neurotoxicity
remains to be fully elucidated, there is increasing evidence
that A-beta induces mitochondrial dysfunction, triggers
apoptosis, and increases the intracellular levels of calcium
and ROS in the AD brain, thus leading to a series of events
which destroy adjacent neurons (94, 95) .
The involvement of ROS in neuronal death
associated to AD led to investigate the effects of
antioxidants in preventing or delaying the sequence of
events causing neuronal destruction. Among these,
melatonin has been deeply evaluated, due not only to its

potent activity as free radical scavenger, but also to the

finding that lower levels of endogenous melatonin were
observed both in serum and in CSF from AD patients
compared with that in age-matched control subjects (96).
Moreover, it has been observed that the concentration of
melatonin in CSF decreases with the progression of AD
neuropathology (97), and that melatonin levels both in CSF
and in postmortem human pineal gland are already reduced
in AD subjects manifesting only the earliest signs of AD
neuropathology, in absence of any sign of cognitive
impairment (98-100). As a consequence, the determination
of CSF concentration of melatonin has been proposed as an
early marker for the detection of AD (101).
The antioxidative protection against A-beta of
melatonin has been confirmed by Pappolla et al., which
showed that co-incubation of both murine neuroblastoma
(N2a) and pheochromocytoma (PC12) cells with A-betapeptides and melatonin greatly reduced the degree of Abeta-induced lipid peroxidation, thus greatly increasing the
survival of the cells (102). In vitro studies demonstrated
that melatonin could efficiently protect from alterations in
neurofilaments hyperphosphorylation and accumulation
induced by calyculin A (CA), through not only its
antioxidant effect but also its direct regulatory effect on the
activities of protein kinases and protein phosphatases (103).
A recent in vivo study by Yang et al. (77) confirmed that
administration of melatonin intraperitoneally for 9
consecutive days before injection of calyculin A in seventyeight male SpragueDawley rats could prevent calyculin Ainduced synaptophysin loss, memory retention deficits, as
well as hyperphosphorylation of tau and neurofilaments.
Furthermore, supplementation with melatonin by
prior injection and reinforcement during haloperidol
administration significantly improved memory retention
deficits, arrested tau hyperphosphorylation and oxidative
stress, and restored Protein phosphatase 2A activity (104).
Melatonin decreased not only oxidative stress and
tau hyperphosphorylation, but also reversed Glycogen
synthase kinase 3 (GSK-3) activation, thereby showing that
melatonin's actions exceeded its antioxidant effects, and
also interfered with the phosphorylation system, especially
stress kinases (103). Tyrosine kinase (trk) receptors,
representing an additional important elements of the
phosphorylation system and neurotrophins, were also
shown to be affected by oxidotoxins, including A-beta. In
neuroblastoma cells, melatonin was capable of normalizing
trk and neurotrophin expression (105).
With regard to the anti-inflammatory effects of
melatonin, the most important feature is its inhibition of
mitochondrial iNOS expression (106, 107). Antioxidant
and anti-inflammatory properties of melatonin are relevant
in mitochondrial physiology, and they may play a
neuroprotective role in neurodegenerative disorders (108).
Melatonin supplementation in patients with Alzheimer
disease significantly slows down the progression of
cognitive impairment and decreases brain atrophy (109). In
a study of 14 patients at various stages of AD, melatonin
supplementation for 2235 months improved sleep and

Melatonin in neurodegenerative disorders

significantly reduced the incidence of sundowning.

Furthermore, patients experienced no cognitive or
behavioral deterioration during the study period (110).
Melatonin has shown to reduce the generation of
A-beta-peptide (111, 112) and also thereby secondarily
reduce neuronal death more efficiently than other
antioxidants (113). This effect is secondary to the inhibition
of the proteolytic processing of soluble derivatives of
amyloid precursor protein (sAPP), as shown by in vitro
experiments (114, 115).
Melatonin displays its antifibrillogenic activity
even in the presence of the profibrillogenic apolipoprotein
E4 (apoE4), and antagonizes the neurotoxic, synergistic
potentiation between A-beta protein and and apoE4 or
apoE3 (116). ApoE4, which aggravates A-beta effects, is
also produced by astrocytes.
The anti-amyloidogenic properties of melatonin
in AD have been also observed in transgenic mice:
melatonin not only inhibited amyloid plaque deposition, but
also improved learning and memory deficits in an APP695
transgenic mouse model of AD (117). However, the
antifibrillogenic effect was not observed when the
treatment was started in old transgenic mice (118),
confirming that, after numerous amyloid plaques have been
formed and neuronal damage has progressed, melatonin is
no longer capable of efficiently antagonizing amyloid
deposition and amyloid-dependent damage.
Counteraction by melatonin against A-betainduced apoptosis has been repeatedly demonstrated in a
number of cellular models of AD including mouse
microglial BV2 cells, rat astroglioma C6 cells, and PC12
cells (119-121). Studies in transgenic AD mice and
cultured cells have suggested that administration of
melatonin prevented the A-beta-induced up-regulation of
apoptosis-related factors such as Bax, and suppressed
caspase-3 activity (117, 119, 122, 123). Experiments in
mouse microglial BV2 cells in vitro showed that melatonin
also decreased caspase-3 activity, inhibited NF-B
activation, and reduced the generation of A-beta-induced
intracellular ROS (124). In addition, in vivo observations
showed that melatonin-treated animals had diminished
expression of NF-B compared to untreated animals (125).
Moreover, melatonin inhibited the phosphorylation of
nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADPH)
oxidase via a PI3K/Akt-dependent signaling pathway in
microglia exposed to A-beta1-42 (126). Taken together, the
above-mentioned evidences suggest that melatonin may
provide an effective means of treatment for AD through its
antiapoptotic activities.
antiamyloidogenic properties of melatonin are not mediated
by MT1 and MT2 melatonin membrane receptors:
experimental studies with MT1 and MT2 receptors agonists
without antioxidant properties showed no effects on
neuroblastoma cells and primary hippocampal neurons
(111). Nevertheless, MT1 and MT2 expression in the
human brain appears to be altered by pathological
conditions such as AD, as observed in postmortem brain

from AD patients (127). The role of MT2 receptors in

hippocampal synaptic plasticity and in memory processes is
also suggested by the fact that transgenic mice deficient in
MT2 receptors demonstrated deficient hippocampal longterm potentiation.
Administration of melatonin to AD patients has
been found to improve significantly sleep and circadian
abnormality and generally to slow down the progression of
the disease (128, 129). Jean-Louis et al. reported the effects
of melatonin administration in two patients with AD (130).
Melatonin enhanced and stabilized the circadian restactivity rhythm in one of the patients along with some
reduction of day time sleepiness and mood improvement.
The results of this study are not statistically significant
because of small sample size. Therefore, the supplementary
use of melatonin in AD patients cannot be recommended
based on the results of this study.
5.2. Melatonin in aging and Parkinson's disease
Parkinson's disease (PD) is the second most
common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimers
disease, occurring most commonly in the elderly. It is
believed to affect approximately 1% of the population over
55 years of age (131). PD is characterized by progressive
loss of dopaminergic neurons in the substantia nigra pars
compacta (SNpc) (132). This depletion of neurons presents
clinically with severe motor symptoms including
uncontrollable resting tremor, bradykinesia, rigidity and
postural imbalance. Pathologically, PD is characterized by
loss of pigmented neurons and gliosis, most prominently in
the substantia nigra pars compacta and locus ceruleus (LC)
and by the presence of fibrillar cytoplasmic inclusions,
known as Lewy bodies. These Lewy bodies (LB) are
concentric eosinophilic cytoplamic intraneuronal inclusions
with peripheral halos and dense cores, whose presence is
essential for the pathological confirmation of PD.
The exact etiology of PD remains to be fully
elucidated, but the key theories propose either an
environmental or a genetic (133) origin, or a combination
of both. Clinical, epidemiological and experimental studies
support the potential role of many different environmental
toxicants in the development of PD such as pesticides and
herbicides (rotenone, paraquat, heptachlor, dieldrin), metals
(manganese, iron, copper), synthetic drug products (MPTP)
and plant-related food and natural products (cycads, betacarboline alkaloids) (134-136).
Research data have clearly indicated that during
PD, SN dopaminergic neurons are subject to oxidative and
nitrosative stress, and mitochondrial dysfunction,
proteasome inhibition and protein aggregation. leading
eventually to cell death (137, 138). But the precise
relationship among these pathways has not been completely
defined. Oxidative stress (reactive oxygen species such as
the superoxide radical, hydroxide radical, and semiquinone
radicals) has been implicated in the progressive
degeneration of dopaminergic neurons, which in turn is one
of the principal causes of PD. Moreover, brains from PD
patients show evidence of elevated oxidative damage to
DNA (139), lipid peroxidation and oxidative modification

Melatonin in neurodegenerative disorders

of proteins (140), decreased levels of reduced glutathione

(GSH) and increased monoamineoxidase (MAO) activity
(141), that indicate reduced antioxidant defense
mechanisms (137). Dopamine oxidation by MAO leads to
the formation of ROS (142) and, if not effectively
detoxified by glutathione, hydrogen peroxide might
potentially induce the generation of highly reactive
hydroxyl radicals in the presence of excess iron via the
Fenton reaction.

neurodegeneration in the toxicological animal models, it

would be of particular importance to know whether
mitochondrial dysfunction is relevant in the PD patient. In
fact, recent investigations did not reveal any differences in
complex I, II/III and IV activities in mitochondria from
platelets (152). However, this does not entirely exclude
striatal mitochondrial dysfunction in advanced stages of
PD, because of an impairment by iron-mediated oxidative

There are several neurotoxin-based models that

have been important in studying the mechanisms of PD
pathogenesis. These include the neuronal oxidotoxin MPTP
which produced symptoms very similar to PD after
injecting in a mice, cats and primates. After administration,
MPTP crosses the blood-brain barrier and is metabolized
into the 1-methyl-4-phenylpyridinium ion (MPP+), by
monoamine oxidase type B. MPP+ is selectively taken up
by dopaminergic neurons. MPP+ toxicity is believed to
result from the mitochondrial inhibition of complex I
leading to oxidative stress (144), depletion of NAD and
ATP, and apoptosis (145, 146). Exposure to MPTP results
in nigrostriatal dopaminergic degeneration with 50-93%
cell loss in the SNpc and more than 99% loss of dopamine
in the striatum (147).

A possible involvement of melatonin in

pathway is evident. Melatonin did not only antagonize
MPP+- induced cell death in cerebellar granular neurons,
but also activation of Cdk5 and cleavage of p35 to p25
(153), kinases involved in neuronal function and plasticity
(154). Whether or not melatonin at pharmacological
concentrations in the MPP+ study influences p25 and Cdk5
activity indirectly via mitochondrial actions and/or directly
by receptor-mediated signal transduction pathways, it
remains to be elucidated.

In in vivo model, rotenone acts as a specific

inhibitor of complex I enzyme in the mitochondrial
respiratory chain (134), thus inducing the formation of
superoxide radicals, with consequent impaired tissue
utilization of oxygen, depletion of the cellular energy and
acute cell death. Like MPP+, rotenone is able to damage
striatal DA terminals after chronic infusion in the jugular
vein for 15 weeks, thus reproducing many of the PD
symptoms including hypokinesia, rigidity and behavioral
changes. Currently, the only therapies approved for the
treatment of PD are agents that attenuate the symptoms of
the disease.
Protection by melatonin was demonstrated in a
variety of experimental PD models. MPTP-induced stress
was antagonized by melatonin at the levels of
mitochondrial radical accumulation, mitochondrial DNA
damage as well as breakdown of the proton potential (148).
Lewy bodies, which are considered cytopathologic markers
of parkinsonism, comprise abnormal arrangements of
tubulin and microtubule-associated proteins, MAP1 and
MAP2. Melatonin effectively promotes cytoskeletal
rearrangements and was assumed to have a potential
therapeutic value in the treatment of parkinsonism, and,
perhaps, generally in dementias with Lewy bodies (149). In
unilaterally 6-OHDA injected-hemi-parkinsonian rats,
protective effects by melatonin were also attributed to
normalizations of complex I activity (150). Suppression of
NO formation and scavenging of reactive nitrogen species
by melatonin and its metabolite AMK should additionally
support cell survival, along with other protective effects,
such as upregulation of the antioxidant enzymes
Cu,ZnSOD, MnSOD, GPx, which has been demonstrated
in cultured dopaminergic cells (151). However, while
complex I inhibition is a plausible cause of

Melatonin secretion patterns have been studied in

patients suffering from PD. A phase advance of the nocturnal
melatonin maximum was noted in L-DOPA-treated but not in
untreated patients, as compared to control subjects (155).
Under medication with L-DOPA, day-time melatonin was
additionally increased, a finding discussed in terms of an
adaptive mechanism in response to the neurodegenerative
process and possibly reflecting a neuroprotective property of
melatonin. In rats, fluctuations in serum melatonin levels were
also related to variations in motor function and attributed to the
interaction of monoamines with melatonin in the striatal
complex (156). Melatonin's inhibitory effect on motor activity
has been suggested as one of the possible causes for the
wearing-off episodes seen during drug treatment of
A double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study,
showed the efficacy of melatonin in schizophrenic patients
suffering from tardive dyskinesia, another disease where
oxidative stressinduced neurotoxicity in the nigrostriatal
system is apparently implicated (157).
Studies undertaken in elderly insomniacs have
demonstrated that melatonin can increase sleep efficiency and
decrease nighttime activity (158). Administration of melatonin
in 5 mg/day for 1 week reduced the nocturnal wake time for
about 20 minutes in eight patients with PD (159). In a recent
double-blind, placebo-controlled study on 40 subjects
conducted over 10 weeks, Dowling et al. (159) noted that
administration of a higher dose of melatonin, 50 mg/per day,
increased actigraphically scored total nighttime sleep in PD
patients, when compared with 5 mg or placebo-treated
patients. Subjective reports of overall sleep disturbance
improved significantly with 5 mg of melatonin compared to 50
mg or placebo (159). This study may indicate that very high
doses of melatonin can be tolerated in PD patients over a 10week period as in healthy older adults.
antiinflammatory actions, showed marked beneficial effects

Melatonin in neurodegenerative disorders

against brain mitochondrial dysfunction with age.

Melatonin production decreases with the aging and
numerous studies have associated this decline in melatonin
levels to the increased levels of oxidative stress and ageassociated degenerative changes (160, 161).
These effects, and the fact that melatonin
virtually lacks toxicity even at large doses, supports its
clinical use in preventing the impairments of aging.
5.3. Melatonin in Huntington disease
Huntington disease (HD) is a neurodegenerative
disorder with a progressive motor impairment, cognitive
decline and psychiatric disturbances (162, 163). It is a
genetically programmed neuronal degeneration inherited in
an autosomal dominant manner and caused by an expanded
CAG triplet repeat expansion in the gene encoding the
protein huntingtin (HTT), a cytoplasmatic protein whose
functions are not fully understood (163). Brain area initially
involved is the striatum and then the cortex.
Many evidences suggest the presence of an
abnormal conformation of mutant HTT (164). The clinical
course, probably resulting by neuronal deterioration
dysfunction and cell death (162), is characterized by a
typical motor dysfunction such as involuntary, unwanted
movements that primarily involve distal extremities and
facial muscles and then all other muscles, with a distal to
proximal progression. If movements disorders are
distinguishing, also other signs fulfill the clinical picture:
unintended weight loss, sleep- and circadian rhythm
disturbances, dysarthria, dysphagia, dystonia, tics,
cerebellar signs, psychiatric symptoms (depression,
anxiety, apathy, obsessions, compulsions, irritability,
aggression, loss of interest, psychosis), autonomic
disturbances, cognitive decline, muscle wasting, metabolic
dysfunction and endocrine disturbances (165), suggesting
neurological and non neurological-mediated mechanisms
(166, 167). Cell death heavily involves striatal area (168)
with pronounced loss of GABAergic medium spiny
projection neurons. Also are described: atrophy of the
cerebral cortex, subcortical white matter, thalamus etc.
Pathognomonic of HD are intranuclear inclusion bodies,
which are large aggregates of abnormal HTT in neuronal
nuclei, also described in cytoplasm, dendrites, and axon
terminals (168, 169). A possible molecular mechanisms
involved in HD pathogenesis involved intracellular
calcium overload causing mitochondrial blockade, NMDA
receptor-mediated excitation and oxidative stress (110).
Experimental studies also shown that antioxidant,
neuroprotective and antiapoptotic activities of melatonin
may have an impact in HD that needs further
investigations (73).
5.4. Melatonin and Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a fatal
motor neuron disease, affecting both the first and second
motoneuron. The progression of ALS is characterized by a
degeneration of motor neurons associated with a dramatic
demyelination in the anterior horn of the spinal cord. The
Pathophysiologically, three major mechanisms are

discussed in ALS: (a) mutations of the superoxide

dismutase 1 (SOD1) gene, causing a toxic gain of function
with enhanced reactivity towards abnormal substrates
(tyrosine nitration), along with an impaired ability to bind
zinc leading to a reduced antioxidant capacity; (b)
mutations in neurofilament genes and oxidative
modifications or hyperphosphorylation of cytoskeletal
proteins leading to selective motor axon degeneration; (c)
excitotoxicity caused by increased cerebrospinal fluid
glutamate levels together with a loss of excitatory amino
acid transporters (170).
There is no promising treatment available to
date. The only compound used for its effects in survival
time is an antiexcitotoxin, Riluzole. As the common basis
of cellular and extracellular alterations in ALS seems to be
oxidative stress mediated by reactive nitrogen/oxygen
species, future attempts of treatment might focus on
antioxidant strategies involving suppression of nitric oxide
(NO) synthase.
Melatonin is an a candidate compound for
neuroprotection in ALS patients, who tolerated high doses
of melatonin (79). Melatonin has a unique broad spectrum
of effects including scavenging of hydroxyl, carbonate,
alkoxyl, peroxyl and aryl cation radicals, stimulation of
glutathione peroxidase and other protective enzymes, but
also suppression of NO synthase. The interference with NO
metabolism has multiple consequences: down-regulation of
NO formation counteracts damage by peroxynitritedependent radicals as well as Ca 2+ -dependent
excitotoxicity. This pleiotropy may explain, at least in part,
why melatonin has been identified as a potent
neuroprotectant, e.g., by attenuating oxidative damage after
experimental neurotrauma (171, 172).
First of all, since melatonin appears to be free
from side effects even upon long-term applications,
melatonin can be used as a prophylaxis to treat those
patients that are at risk of developing ALS. Such patients
would be those that have been identified with the genetic
marker associated with ALS, i.e., familial form of ALS,
and those patients who exhibit early signs of motor neuron
disease, such as impaired motor control.
Although melatonin seems to have a rapid
turnover, the administration of slow release preparations
maintains high plasma levels for about 6 hr. In
SOD1(G93A)-transgenic mice, high-dose oral melatonin
delayed disease progression and extended survival. In a
clinical safety study, chronic high-dose (300 mg/day) rectal
melatonin was well tolerated during an observation period
of up to 2 years. Importantly, circulating serum protein
carbonyls, which provide a surrogate marker for oxidative
stress, were elevated in ALS patients, but were normalized
to control values by melatonin treatment. This combination
of preclinical effectiveness and proven safety in humans
suggests that high-dose melatonin is suitable for clinical
trials aimed at neuroprotection through antioxidation in
ALS (48). The role of melatonin in this disease needs to be
explored further conducting well-designed clinical

Melatonin in neurodegenerative disorders


Melatonin is currently marketed in several
countries as a dietary supplement requiring no prescription.
Commercial melatonin products are primarily synthesized
from 5-methoxyindole, as natural products - extracted from
bovine pineal glands - are not recommended because of the
small, but significant, risk of contamination from animal
CNS viruses. At present, data are too limited and/or
inconsistent to recommend melatonin for any specific
indication. Clinical trials have shown variable degrees of
efficacy in the treatment of several pathological conditions,
including circadian rhythm disorders, cancer, etc. Two
meta-analyses found no significant evidence of efficacy for
melatonin in improving sleep efficiency (the proportion of time
in bed spent asleep) or managing secondary sleep disorders
and sleep disorders accompanying sleep restriction, such as jet
lag and shiftworks (173, 174). Another multi-center
randomized placebo-controlled trial assessed the effects of 3weeks prolonged-release melatonin 2 mg (PR-melatonin)
versus placebo on 170 primary insomnia outpatients aged 55
years or older. PR-melatonin significantly improved quality of
sleep and morning alertness compared with placebo (175).
Similar results were obtained in another randomized controlled
trial on 177 insomnia patients taking 2 mg modified-release
melatonin or placebo (176). No adverse events were
significantly more frequent with melatonin than with placebo.
Adverse reactions reported in clinical trials include headache,
depression, sinus tachycardia, and pruritus.
Besides its well-known regulatory role on
circadian rhythm, the growing body of observations from
experiments with endogenously produced and exogenously
administered melatonin disclosed its involvement in a
broad range of biological functions, ubiquitously occurring
in the body. These activities, particularly the capacity of
melatonin to reduce the degree of tissue damage and limit
the progression of those diseases associated with oxidative
stress have been documented in a number of in vitro and in
vivo studies and are being tested for their clinical
In two different double-blind, randomized,
parallel-group, placebo-controlled trials, Gupta et al.
assessed the effect of add-on melatonin administration on
the antioxidant enzymes glutathione peroxidase (GPx) and
glutathione reductase (GRd) in epileptic children receiving
carbamazepine or valproic acid in monotherapy,
respectively. An increase in GRd activity was noted in the
melatonin group as compared with a decrease of the same
enzyme in the placebo group, confirming the capacity of
melatonin to minimize damage caused by oxidative stress
in carbamazepine/valproate-treated patients (177, 178).
Melatonin also showed to improve both survival and
quality of life of metastatic non-small cell lung cancer
patients when concomitantly administered to chemotherapy
(179). The rationale of melatoninchemotherapy
association is mainly justified by the fact that melatonin
reduces chemotherapy-induced lymphocyte damage (180);
furthermore, recent experimental observations have shown
that the antioxidant agents may enhance the cytotoxic
action of the chemotherapeutic drugs (181). Moreover,

melatonin showed no benefits in surgical oxidative stress as

well as rheumatoid arthritis in three different randomized
placebo-controlled trials (182-184).
With specific reference to the brain, as mentioned
above, the fact that melatonin readily crosses the bloodbrain-barrier, coupled with its optimal safety profile at the
highest dosages represent two major advantages compared
to other available antioxidants. An indirect prove
confirming the preventive effect of this hormone against
free radicals insult is the significant presence of melatonin
in several plant species known for their neuroprotective
properties, which are often consumed with the food or used
in the context of Chinese traditional medicine (185).
The increased prevalence of neurodegenerative
diseases in developed countries and absence of effective
and/or well tolerated treatments for many of them, urge
further investigation to elucidate the role of free radicals in
such disorders and the potential clinical role of melatonin
(as well as other antioxidants) in slowing down their
progression. Confirmations from large clinical trials will
also be essential to identify clinically relevant
concentrations of melatonin required under different
pathological conditions.
Regrettably, the number of randomized controlled
trials testing the effectiveness of melatonin on
neurodegenerative disorders is still very low, and their
quality is often poor. The limitations of interventional trials
in this field are that, because diseases have a long induction
period, these types of studies may not be very feasible
because of high costs and excessive time required.
Furthermore, although epidemiological studies clearly
show a correlation between the increased consumption of
food rich in antioxidants and a decreased risk of oxidative
stress-induced diseases, it is often very difficult to establish
whether supplementation beyond dietary intake levels is of
benefit, as well as to interpret the role of the nutraceutical
supplementation in the progression of the disease. As a
consequence, hard endpoints (such as mortality) are rarely
used. To overcome this difficulty, the development of
validated biomarkers as intermediate endpoints may help to
understand the complexity of degenerative diseases at their
different stages.
There were no supporting funds for this study.
Dr. Polimeni, Dr. Esposito, and Prof. Cuzzocrea were
involved in the conception and planning of the work and in
the preparation of the manuscript. Dr. Bevelacqua and
Prof. Guarneri were involved in the collection and
reporting of the data.
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Abbreviations: ROS: reactive oxygen species, CNS:
central nervous system, CSF: cerebrospinal fluid, NO:
N1-acetyl-5methoxykynuramine, COX-2: cyclooxygenase 2, TNF:
tumor necrosis factor, mtPTP: mitochondrial permeability
transition pore, iNOS: inducible nitric oxide synthases,
NSAIDs: non-steroidal ant-inflammatory drugs, AD:
Alzheimers disease, NFT: neurofibrillary tangles, APP:
amyloid precursor protein, CA: calyculin A, GSK-3:
Glycogen synthase kinase 3, NADPH: nicotinamide
adenine dinucleotide phosphate, PD: Parkinson's disease,
SNpc: substantia nigra pars compacta, LC: locus ceruleus,
LB: Lewy bodies, MAO: monoamineoxidase, MPTP: 1methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine, MPP+: 1methyl-4-phenylpyridinium ion, HD: Huntington disease,
ALS: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, SOD1: superoxide
dismutase 1, GPx: glutathione peroxidase, GPd: glutathione
Key Words: Melatonin, Dietary
Neuroprotection, Review


Melatonin in neurodegenerative disorders

Send correspondence to: Giovanni Polimeni, IRCCS

Centro Neurolesi, Bonino-Pulejo, Messina, Italy, Tel: 39090-60128862,